The holiday season, beginning Halloween weekend and ending on New Year’s Day, can be a precarious period for those who are either in their initial two years of recovery or who are continuing to struggle with active substance addiction, according to the NIH (National Institute of Health). It is no secret that community building with peers and those with sustained lived experience in recovery is an essential element to helping those in early recovery not only make meaningful connections, but to successfully make it through the holidays without falling prey to the amplified triggers that have the potential to make them vulnerable to relapse.
Studies, including this NIH research study, continue to confirm that there is a strong relationship linking adverse childhood experience (ACE’s), subsequent substance addiction and poor mental health outcome. While the holiday season marks a time where family and other loved ones come together in celebration, they can also lead to the early recovery community being in situations where they may – unintentionally – re-experience memories of childhood trauma for the first time sober, which can be very emotional and stress inducing. Additionally, people with substance addiction (in or out of recovery) who don’t have something equally powerful to overcome it and/or develop lasting resilience, can often turn to their drug of choice to help sooth or block out these adverse emotions. On top of this, holiday festivities often center around serving alcohol as a social lubricant and to help celebrate the occasion, which can be a struggle in early recovery – even if alcohol isn’t their drug of choice, as explained in the NIH publication Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. As the publication explains, illicit drug and alcohol use amplifies the pleasure center of the brain, and then, over time, can lead to physical and emotional dependency, followed by addiction. This science helps explain why ingesting any substance that feeds the pleasure center of the brain can be a relapse trigger for someone who already has substance addiction. The same publication goes on to explain how it can, sometimes, take years after entering recovery for the brain to return to producing normal amounts of dopamine in the pleasure center of the brain, allowing the body to enjoy things naturally. For instance, it might take the brain up to two years to function normally for someone recovering from long-term methamphetamine use. These reasons and more speak to why it’s so important to have the support of peers and others with long-term lived experience in their recovery community during the early stages of their own recovery, particularly as these individuals can provide a potent relief to any doubts about their recovery, having already been through the trials and tribulations of early recovery themselves, and successfully navigating the holidays sober.
For those in their first year or two of recovery specifically – and regardless of the recovery path selected – researchshows that the supportive connection and community of peers is essential for sustaining long-term recovery from substance addiction. It is often said substance addiction is a “disease of loneliness” and can lead to “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” Isolation, obsessive and compulsive behavior and consequences while in the acute stages of active addiction can lead to fractured or ended loving relationships with family and friends in favor of pursuing the next high. It’s important to remember that healing these damaged or severed relationships in recovery can take many years of sustained efforts on both sides. And this, paired with the injection of the holidays during this time can force interactions with family and loved ones who may still be hurt by the past active addiction. In some cases, the holiday season may land at a time well before the opportunity to build a solid foundation in recovery has presented itself, or before lessons in setting boundaries and maintaining them have been learned, or before developing the confidence, compassion, forgiveness, humility and gratitude to navigate the pitfalls the holidays create. Remember: A person in recovery is never alone.
Common tips to successfully navigate holiday events and maintain recovery include: planning ahead and creating an escape route, having separate transportation so leaving the event is not dependent on others transportation, role playing what to say if someone offers alcohol or another illicit drug, declining drinks not having witnessed being poured or from a glass having been put down and left unattended, finding supportive recovery peers to also attend with, setting realistic expectations, and “bookending” scheduled recovery activities before and after to decompress and stay connected.
A valuable thing to keep in mind is that just because the holidays have always been a certain way, it doesn’t mean things can’t be changed once in recovery by utilizing the tools that come through the journey.
Prioritize recovery by seeking support, taking direction from the support of those who have experienced it before, particularly during the holidays, and have the willingness, open-mindedness and honesty about what’s at stake in not staying sober in order to consistently apply that direction in how to walk through the season. For those who are struggling, don’t keep it a secret or think “I’ve got this” and ask for help from those who are in the same recovery support community. Seeking and being willing to receive help is the “easier, softer way” to maintain recovery during the holidays and is a true source of strength, not weakness. It is not weak to ask for help and could be what’s needed to save a person from the pain and suffering of an unintended relapse or overdose.
Finally, when in doubt about the holidays, finding a way to be of service to others within the recovery community will always bring relief, plus it’s a way to practice self-care. Becoming “other” thinking is a powerful way to take the opposite action and get out of one’s own head. Plus, it can often provide the relief needed when tough times arise during the holidays.